The Sounds of the Syrian Opposition: Music & Contested Identities Joel Daniel Parker – Musings of a counter culture

Editors: Dr. Harel Chorev, Hadas Sofer Shabtai, Ben Silsbee – Volume 2, No. 1, January 2014

Since the outbreak of the uprising in Syria in March 2011, there has been a dramatic shift in the culture of political opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Many voices no longer have to hide their message in carefully constructed codes or indirect expressions of political discontent. Within this new paradigm, Syrian artists both within Syria and abroad, have used music to proclaim their opposition to the regime. In the past three years, thousands of videos have been uploaded to YouTube, many of which combine poetry, music, and images often including footage taken by witnesses in Syria reflecting the bloody events of the conflict.

Despite sharing a common goal of overthrowing the regime, the artists who create and spread this music represent a diverse range of voices. Following their works, as they are reproduced online, highlights the various distinct identities comprised by the opposition.

The violent conflict began when protests first broke out in the southern city of Daraʿa in March 2011 as a response to the arrest of several youths who had been
accused of creating anti-regime graffiti. In response, elements allied to the regime of Bashar al-Assad fired on protesters, killing a number of civilians. Samih
Choukeir, a songwriter and oud player living in Paris, known for his support of minorities and oppressed citizens of the Arab world, responded immediately to these events with a powerful song, worded in the secular nationalist idiom, entitled “Ya Haif” (Oh, the Shame).

Choukeir’s song condemned the regime of his homeland in a mixture of colloquial and classical Arabic:
And budding children like roses, you arrested; how? How?
You, a son of my land, are killing my children, while you ignore my enemy…
The youth heard how freedom was at their doors,
So they rushed [out] to cheer for her…1
Within a short period of time, this song became an anthem of the revolution, and was reproduced in several versions and attained hundreds of thousands of views on
the web. Following the transformation of the uprising into a civil war, the most common response in comments on YouTube has become simply an echo of the
refrain, “What a shame.”
In the first stages of the uprising, the regime in fact condemned the killing of protestors. However, numerous videos emerged on YouTube showing violence
carried out against the protesters by those referred to as the militias of “shabiha” (ghosts)—a euphemism alluding to thugs supporting the regime, likely members of
the ʿAlawi minority. The unfortunate fate of many protestors overtook the “Nightingale” Ibrahim Qashush, from Hama, a city whose predominantly Sunni
population has been long at odds with the regime in Damascus. Qashush produced a rap song set to a traditional dabka dance beat with the refrain “Yallah irhal ya
Bashar” (Go away Bashar!). Qashush met a brutal death; his vocal chords were symbolically cut before his body was thrown into the Orontes River.2 After his death,
several Facebook pages were dedicated to his memory, including the page,

“We’re all the martyr Ibrahim Qashush.” The motif “We’re all (X)”, referring to a slain member of a protest group, is characteristic of the Arab Spring culture, following the
page, “We’re all Khaled Said,” after a victim of the Egyptian uprising against Hosni Mubarak. Qashush’s song was reproduced in dozens of versions on YouTube, and at
least one of them has nearly half a million views.3
The tragic story of Ibrahim Qashush inspired the Syrian diaspora-based classical composer Malek Jandali, who formed the “Qashush Freedom Symphony.” Jandali’s
works belong to the genre of western classical music, and were uploaded to the web with images representing the brutality of the Syrian regime. Jandali has received
some criticism among conservatives who preferred traditional Syrian music and poetry to represent the uprising, but the “street” voted in favor, viewing one of his
videos over 200,000 times. A typical comment: “I listened to it many times and still didn’t have enough from it. Mr. Malek when I listen to your music I feel proud [to be]
a Syrian.”4

By the summer of 2011, as the number of victims in the uprising grew, religiously oriented themes of martyrdom entered the soundscape. Yahya Hawwa, an imam
and singer from Hama, who grew up in Saudi Arabia, and who has nearly 1.3 million followers on Facebook, uploaded a music video to YouTube entitled, “Going out to
Face Death.” In the song, accompanied by music, a young man sings to his mother that he’s going to be a martyr, but not to be sad, because “[her] son is going to fight
oppression.”5 Through such songs, the Syrian Muslim clergy in exile were able for the first time in decades to openly mobilize opposition against the regime.6

Songs with an Islamic religious tone are also uploaded to the web in the style of anashid (hymns), which is to say a cappella music without musical accompaniment.
These choruses are consistent with the strict interpretation of Islam by Salafi movements, which include the global Sunni jihadi movements such as al-Qaeda—
actively involved in Syria today. They serve as a channel to connect Salafi and jihadi groups to the culture of revolutionary songs, without going against their
interpretations of Islamic doctrine, which forbids listening to many types of music.7

In conclusion, the various types of opposition music as they are represented on the internet, both in content and visual appearance, generally reflect conflicted Syrian
identities, and in particular that of secular versus religious worldviews. As a result, some of the religious-nationalist songs of the opposition can be found online both
with and without musical accompaniment—though the accompanied versions have far more views.8 The dilemmas composers address by releasing dual versions of
their songs reflects a similar quandary among the armed opposition trying to overthrow the Assad regime. On the one hand, representatives of the opposition
must keep from alienating the moderate Sunni base of the uprising, while at the same time those connected to fighting on the ground must be sensitive to
puritanical strains of Islam, and accept the place of their unique artistic forms. In light of the increasing presence on the web of jihadi songs, in line with the increase
of Sunni Islamic groups in Syria, appeasing both sides may become more complex in the future. In any event, opposition music and videos have resonated widely on the
web. Such expressions of defiance against the regime are more daring than ever and they allow the observer a cultural-political angle with which to grasp the changes
occurring within the Syrian opposition movements.
“Unforgivable:” Renewed Conflict between the Iranian Regime and its Opponents around the Unrest in 2009

Dr. Raz Zimmt – Recently, the struggle between heads of the Iranian regime and supporters the reformist opposition has been reignited on social network services (SNS). The
background for the renewed tension is the observance of the fourth anniversary of 4 the demonstrations the regime initiated in its own support on December 30, 2009.
These demonstrations were a response to the unrest led by the reformist opposition (“Green Movement”) a few days earlier, as part of the protest movement that
erupted after the presidential elections in Iran the previous summer. While subduing the demonstrations with an iron fist, the Iranian regime initiated a round of mass
arrests of reformist activists, thereby putting an end to the movement.
Prior to the anniversary of the protest, senior officials in the regime initiated a strident public relations campaign against reformist opposition leaders, particularly
Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, who have been under house arrest since February 2011, and former president Mohammad Khatami. Public pressure to
release Mousavi and Karoubi has mounted following President Hassan Rouhani’s campaign promise to free them. To date, the efforts to obtain their release have
been unsuccessful; Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has conditioned their release on a public apology from the two men.

On December 25, the official site of Khamenei published a poster, supposedly showing prosecution files relating to the unrest in 2009 bearing the stamp “unforgivable” (pictured).
Under the picture there is a quotation from a statement made by Khamenei in November 2000 and Lebanon which he defined the unrest as “a great sin.” Other senior officials joined the attack on opposition leaders including commander of the Internal Security Forces, Ismail Ahmadi Muqaddam, and spokesman for the judiciary Hayyad-Mohsani Hussein-
Ulema ע‘ולאם-חוסיין מוחסני-אז‘האי who declared, each in his own way, that anyone who took part in the unrest is unworthy of pardon. Moreover, on the eve of the
anniversary this year, the regime distributed a nine volume encyclopedia documenting the unrest in 2009. The pictures of the “chief instigators” Mousavi,
Karoubi, and Khatami appear on the cover of the encyclopedia.
The institutional campaign against reformist opposition leaders aroused great anger on SNS. In response to the poster on the Supreme Leader’s website, reformist activists
created a Facebook page titles, “Unforgivable.”9 Many Facebook and Twitter users created an “unforgivable”10 hashtag that they attached to examples of civil rights
violations by the Iranian regime, thereby claiming that it is actually the violent repression of the unrest in 2009 and the violations of human rights by regime that are
Pictures of those killed during the 2009 unrest. The headline reads, “Unforgivable” – unworthy of forgiveness.
Moreover, many surfers have emphasized that they do not need the authorities’ forgiveness, they never requested it and are proud to have participated in
protests against the regime. Some have even added green fingerprints (a symbol of the protests in 2009) to their Facebook profiles in order to express their
identification with the reformist opposition. Following reports about distribution of the encyclopedia documenting the unrest of 2009, another Facebook
page was launched: “We demand that our name be included in the encyclopedia of instigators.”11

Many surfers uploaded their pictures to this page, with the comment “I demand that my name be included in the encyclopedia” (picture, right).
The discourse that developed on SNS around the events of November 30, 2009 also included criticism of Pres. Rouhani’s controversial remarks on the anniversary of the
rally in support of the regime. At a meeting of the government, Rouhani emphasized that the demonstrations on December 30, 2009 (meaning the demonstration
support of the regime) expressed citizens’ desire to protect Islam and express their support for the revolution and its leader, because they felt that their beliefs and
values had been offended. He further explained that foreign forces wish to intervene in internal events in Iran. Rouhani’s comments were criticized by many surfers who
expressed disappointment that rather than defending the legitimate right of citizens to demonstrate, the president preferred to praise the demonstrations in support of
the oppressors.12
The storm that arose on SNS regarding the demonstrations of December 30 is living evidence that the national wounds inflicted by the unrest in 2009 is yet to heal. The
refusal of the regime’s leaders to release leaders of the reformist opposition on one hand and the hostility that a large segment of the public feels towards the regime
following the suppression of the popular protest on the other hand impede the efforts to promote national reconciliation following the change of administration
and the election President Rouhani. From this perspective, SNS, more than any other channel of communications are an accurate reflection of the deep fracture between
the regime and its opponents. Simultaneously, it seems that SNS has become the main arena for the struggle of the memory of the events of 2009 and their legacy,
and that both sides understand the explosive potential of this inheritance.

I proudly declare that I am in “instigator.” Please add my name to the encyclopedia

Will the museum again host prayers: The future of Hagia Sophia debate

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak

During the last month, social networks (SNS) in Turkey continued discussing the ongoing dispute between Prime Minister Erdoğan and the Hizmet (Service)
movement led by Fethullah Gülen. Alongside the main discourse, there is also a lively discussion about the future of the Hagia Sophia Museum. Beginning in 1453 when
the Ottomans conquered Istanbul, Hagia Sophia (originally a church) was a mosque. In 1934, Atatürk decided to turn the building into a museum, and again displayed the ancient
images of Jesus and Mary engraved on the walls, making the well-known Christian heritage of the building clearly apparent.
Recently, it emerged that the government intends to turn the museum back into a mosque. Government spokesperson Bulent Arinc hinted at this when he said, “The sorrowful building will soon return to life.”13
The government’s plans for Hagia Sophia are also hinted in its decision last June to convert to the Hagia Sophia musuems in Iznik and Trabzon into mosques. Like the
Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, these Byzantine churches were converted into mosques after the Ottoman conquest and became museums in the days of Atatürk.
The comments made by Arinc and the transformation of the churches in Iznik and Trabzon into mosques led to a discussion on SNS about the future of Hagia Sophia in
Istanbul. Islamic surfers created hashtags expressing their desire to see it reconverted into a mosque. The most prominent of these declared, “We will not
enter Hagia Sophia with tickets but only after purifying ourselves for prayer” (see the picture).14 At the same time, other Islamic surfers called on Erdoğan to complete the
work begun by Mehmed the Conqueror, the Ottoman Sultan who first turned the church into a mosque in 1453, “before the Greeks take control of its heritage.”15

This call came in response to pictures printed by the Greek soccer team AEK showing Hagia Sophia without its minarets (see picture). The National Turkish Students
Union, the framework in which Erdoğan began his political career, provided massive support on SNS for the idea of transforming the musuem into a mosque and even
suggested target date, May 29, the anniversary of the conquest of Constantinople.16
This date was not chosen randomly. By the end of May, the results of the municipal elections will be known, and Erdoğan will be able to use them as framework for
setting out a strategy to ensure his reelection in the presidential elections scheduled for August 2014. As of this writing, discussion of the future of Hagia Sophia remains a
relatively marginal topic on the Turkish political agenda. However considering the ongoing conflict between Erdoğan and Gülen, it is likely that the subject will play a
central role in Erdoğan’s election campaign. As the senior opposition activist in the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Baykent Sinan noted, Erdoğan is likely to use the
Hagia Sophia card to recruit Islamic forces to his sides, and tilt the balance against Gülen.
The discussion of the future of Hagia Sophia on SNS in Turkey is additional evidence that the networks have become an inseparable part of the political system,
particularly during the period approaching the municipal and presidential elections.
Furthermore, this is an example of optimal utilization of SNS: on one hand Erdoğan gains the support of Islamic voters by placing the issue close to his heart – returning
Hagia Sophia to its pre-Kamalist use as a mosque – on the agenda. On the other hand, he can keep the issue on a low flame, waiting for just the right moment to
derive the maximum political capital from drawing the card, certainly much closer to the date of the presidential elections.
1 Sham SNN, March, 2011.

m%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DKDuzpBPgkU8&has_verified=1&bpctr=1384246975, my translation.
2 Sham Network, June 27, 2011,
3 Uploaded July 8, 2011,
4 Uploaded February 10, 2012,
5 Yahya Hawwa. Uploaded June 8, 2011.
6 Thomas Pierret, Religion and the State in Syria, Cambridge University Press, 2013.
7 Benham Said, “Hymns (Nasheed): A Contribution to the Study of Jihadist Culture,” Studies in
Conflict and Terrorism, 35, 12, December, 2012, pp. 863-879.
8 Two versions of the music video, “Haram Aleyh” (It’s not allowed), were uploaded by “Ahrar
al-Sham” in June, 2012. The a cappella version has been viewed only 4,000 times, versus nearly
300,000 views for the accompanied version:, and .
10 In Farsi ) # ود 
13 “Ayasofya cami mi oluyor?”, T24, November 15, 2013,
oluyor/244082 [Accessed on: December 16, 2013]
1414 HagiaSophiaMosque ComingSoon #AyasofyaİbadeteAçılsın #AyasofyaÜmmeteHasret
#ayasofya_cami_olmalı #ayasofya_cami_olmalı #ayasofyamsabret #ayasofyaibadeteacılsın
#AyasofyamSecdeyeHasret #ayasofya_cami_olmalı #ayasofyaicinkıyama
15 #AyasofyayıAçbeUSTA
16 In this context, note that echoes of this discourse are felt in Greece. The Greeks consider this an
anachronistic step and have asked Turkey to preserve Christian churches appropriately because
of they are part of the world’s heritage, see “Ayasofya için Yunanistan’dan Sert Tepki: Çağdışı bir
hareket”, Agos, November 19, 2013,
sert-tepki-cagdisi-bir-hareket&haberid=6156, [Accessed on: December 16, 2013 ]